One of the byproducts of this astonishing stretch of October baseball is that the New York Yankees seem more human than ever. Instead of being dismissed as the Evil Empire, they have become a team to sympathize with. Hard to believe, really, but with Derek Jeter howling in agony from a broken ankle, Alex Rodriguez unable to hit anything faster than Little League pitching and being periodically benched and manager Joe Girardi coping with the death of his father, it may be that even those who have hated the Yankees for a lifetime might be softening.
Saturday night’s American League Championship Series 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers dished out drama at a faster rate than a Eugene O’Neill play. One minute the Tigers have Game 1 wrapped up, the next minute they are dealt a devastating, demoralizing blow in the bottom of the ninth inning and a 4-0 lead is now a tie game.
There were probably more fans jammed up in the parking lot than still remained shivering in the 40-something chill of Yankee Stadium when two two-run homers temporarily rescued the Yankees.
Somehow, even though he is 38, Ichiro Suzuki seems faster going from home plate to first base than Usain Bolt over the same distance. He has shown that he still has the wheels in this post-season. Then Ichiro, who hardly ever hits home runs, rips a two-run homer to cut the Detroit lead to 4-2. I think Ichiro has shown enough to be signed for next year.
A few minutes later, Raul Ibanez, who is having the greatest week of his life, hit another two-run homer to tie the game and send it into the uncharted waters of overtime. Ibanez already hit a home run in the ninth inning against Baltimore to tie a playoff game and followed up with another home run in the 12th to win the same game. When Reggie Jackson was pulling off such Mr. October stunts a few years back he got a candy bar named for him. At the least Ibanez has earned a sandwich named after him at the Carnegie Deli.
All of this happened in the same game where the Yankees three times left the bases loaded without scoring a run. All post-season records have been inflated by adding layers of playoffs, but the Yankees had not done that ever, including all of their World Series games dating back to the Babe Ruth era.
After Ichiro’s and Ibanez’s miracle makers the teams embarked on an-hour-and-a-half of extra innings until the good-for-them Tigers displayed a remarkable steeliness to nab the victory in the 12th inning. No doubt manager Jim Leyland thanked his players for the 90 minutes of torture. Every time a TV camera focused on Leyland following the double whammy ninth-inning homers he appeared to be struggling with indigestion.
Also in the last inning Jeter, coming off an unexpectedly spectacular regular season at 38, ended up writhing in the infield dirt in pain after cracking his ankle and finishing his season. Some may suggest it is the end of his career given his age, but that is probably not true. It might be the end of the Yankees’ World Series hopes for 2012, though.
The Tigers earned universal admiration for the way they bounced back from what could have been a crushing defeat. The Yankees, who have endured all season in the face of numerous injuries, including the early season-ending knee injury to closer Mariano Rivera, are built to withstand almost anything. As the team’s heart and soul Jeter is irreplaceable, but if the team can pull together and go on from here to win a world championship, this group will become legendary.
Red Sox fans, White Sox fans, and heck, fans in several other cities, have long despised the Yankees for their decades of rub-your-face-in-it success. Those teams’ supporters may even be gloating after these New York setbacks. But there are millions of other baseball fans who rate more in the neutral category who could be won over if the Yankees regroup without Jeter and win it all.
This time a New York World Series championship would be scored through a perseverance and resilience that would overshadow the old arrogance. They could go from the “Damn Yankees” to the “Survivor” Yankees. To have a chance, now all the Yankee star players have to do is stop hitting like the New York Mets and start hitting like their own resumes.